Defense lawyers for John Allen Muhammad, the D.C. Sniper, argued on Tuesday that he was incompetent to represent himself for two days of his 2003 trial.
The hearing at the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals could reverse Muhammad’s conviction and sentence, or could result in a new jury trial.
Muhammad was sentenced to death in 2003 for the murder of Dean Meyers, one of the 10 victims of Muhammad and his 17-year-old accomplice Lee Boyd Malvo. Malvo, the shooter, received a life sentence for his role in the shootings that terrorized Virginia, Maryland, D.C., and much of the eastern seaboard in 2002.
In the 90-minute hearing, Jon Sheldon, Muhammad’s defense attorney, cited evidence that his client’s brain was damaged by childhood beatings as cause for Muhammad’s incompetence, according to a report by the Richmond Times Dispatch. Sheldon argued that Muhammad should have received a psychological evaluation before being allowed to act as his own defense.
Sheldon told the three-judge appellate panel that Muhammad “was seriously paranoid” at the time of trial, making claims that he “might be from another planet and was a prophet.”
“Counsel was ineffective for failing to alert the court,” he added, and that the court “would have had an absolute obligation under Virginia law to hold a competency hearing.”
Sheldon argued that allowing Muhammad to defend himself in this state violated his Sixth Amendment rights to have competent representation.
Katherine B. Burnett, representing the attorney general’s office, countered that Muhammad’s actions in court were proof of his competence.
“It was a very foolish and unwise decision,” she said, “but he wasn’t incompetent.”
Sheldon said that if Muhammad hadn’t represented himself he “would not have made those crazy statements to the jury,” referencing Muhammad’s claim that the state’s case against him was “insane lies.”